Death of the Ogallala Aquifer

Agriculture, especially in the semi-arid and arid regions of the Great Plains is on the tail end of its slippery slope of demise – as it has been since the first farmer to have a water well drilled into the Ogallala Aquifer (currently the largest underground water supply in the country) thought the supply was endless.  The farming of annual crops only hastens the dwindling underground water supplies in the High Plains region, and continues to deplete a soil biota that took millions of years to form. Turning this area back to native shortgrass prairie would be the only proper thing to do, for it is way past time for a change.

This aquifer does not recharge (refill) as easily as some others do when precipitation falls within its watersheds, largely due to the simple facts that the region has a high rate of evaporation, rainfall is highly variable in the drought-common region over time and space, the difference in thickness of the layers of the aquifer itself, as well as the differences in soil types – clayey soils make recharge very low, while others like the Edwards Aquifer with its karst formations allows far greater recharge.  Rather, the Ogallala is recharged by overland flow (runoff) from heavy rains and spring snowmelt from the watersheds of the Eastern Rocky Mountains and foothills, as well as heavy rains that fill the seasonally-inundated playa basins.

However, because snowpacks are smaller and subsequent snowmelt in the Southern Rockies is earlier than in recent decades, and vast changes in surface hydrology in the region have occured due to wasteful lawns, plowing of playa basins and 10,000 year old shortgrass prairies, roads, cities, houses, farms, ditches, reuse pits, stock tanks, dams, and all the other man-made “improvements”, as well as current changes in the global climate, those recharge processes are forever broken and little of the precipitation today recharges the aquifer.

We can’t continue to sacrifice our water to build a food supply for other countries –  especially when the US wastes 40-50% of what we grow and produce.  This is severely unsustainable and ecologically unethical; and shameful, too.  But most of the public won’t pay any mind to this situation until they go and turn on their faucet and nothing comes out.  What a sad world we live in when we take for granted something as precious and life-giving as water, especially the Ogallala water, for it is fossil water, and once it’s pumped out, it’s gone forever.

“We are shaping the world faster than we can change ourselves, and we are applying to the present the habits of the past.”
Winston Churchill

Ogallala Facts:
• If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water
• If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally
• More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops
• The aquifer is currently being drained at about 6 times the rate of recharge, largely due to agriculture
Source: University of Texas at Austin

“The complicated prairie survives against the odds, and our simple farms don’t.”  – Paul Gruchow

For more information about how human-caused changes are affecting our water supply on a global scale, check out the documentary “Last Call at the Oasis“.  The trailer is below.


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